Who Were the Magi?

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,

(Mat 2:1 NRSV)

The Greek word for “wise men” is magoi, the plural of magus. It may read “magi”, “kings”, or “wise men,” depending on your translation. The word is usually more closely associated with magic than royalty or wisdom, so magi seems the most accurate. Gingrich’s Lexicon says it can mean “wise men” or “astrologers.” Friberg’s Lexicon says it refers to the high priestly caste of Persia. Thayer’s Lexicon says it was a name the Babylonians, Medes, and Persians used to refer to “wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augurs, soothsayers, sorcerers etc.” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, entry 3280 magus).

Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian, uses it in a more neutral way for “one of a Median tribe” (Liddell-Scott, Greek Lexicon (Abridged)). For an example of how it is used in the Old Testament, we have this from the book of Daniel. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had a disturbing dream, so he did what all kings did back then: He called in his experts to help him interpret the dream.

So the king commanded that the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans be summoned to tell the king his dreams. When they came in and stood before the king,

(Dan 2:2 NRSV)

In the Septuagint, magus translates the Hebrew ‘ashaph, which corresponds with “enchanters” in this translation. The reference to the Chaldeans could connect it to the “Medians” per Herodotus. The BDB lexicon defines it as a “conjurer, [or] necromancer,” and says it is probably a loan word from the Babylonian asuipu. All of the categories listed probably had some connection with magic and/or astrology, and they are advisors to the king. We could probably guess the magi in the Nativity story are the same. It is clear that they practiced astrology, because the appearance of a star prompted their journey.

In the Book of Acts, magi include Simon Magus (8:9-11), Bar Jesus (13:6), and Elymas (13:8), all of them villains. However, they would not have had the same status as Median or Persian magi in the court of the king. Given what Persian religion was, they might have been priests, as Friberg and Thayer said. There is an old image of the magi wearing caps shaped like cornucopias that identify them as priests of Mithras. Though it is dated several hundred years later, it is a possibility.

The Case for Persia

If you’re feeling like I turned a firehose of information on you, fear not. We can make sense of all this.

Scholars have speculated that these magi were likely either Persian or Arabian. I think Persian is more likely. They came “from the East,” so the land of Persia (Parthia to the Romans) is a likely candidate. The books of Daniel and Esther make references to the laws of the Medes and the Persians, and as one lexicon said, there is a possible connection of magoi with the Medes. Ever since Cyrus conquered Babylon for the Persians in about 538 BC, there had been a thriving community of Jews in Babylon. The book of Daniel is all about how he and his friends served alongside the advisors of the king’s court. It’s not hard to imagine that some wise men, priests, or magicians (perhaps a combination of all three) might have had some Jewish friends. They might have learned about their expectation of a Messiah. And then, they saw a “star” that indicated there was a new king of the Jews. Then about nine months later, they saw another “star.” Two stars in nine months both saying the same thing? For counselors/magicians/astrologers, that had to be significant. (I talk about what these “stars” most likely were in a previous post).

So they travel to Jerusalem along established trade routes bringing gifts, because you always bring gifts when you want to appear before a foreign king, perhaps on camels (or not, since archeologists said a few years ago there were no camels in the middle east until the 9th century AD, which makes no sense, because how could they be mentioned in the Bible so many times if the Biblical authors never saw or even heard of a camel? I like archeologists, but they got some ‘splaining to do on that).

Anyway, they arrive at the palace of Herod, king of the Jews, because isn’t that where you would look for a newborn king? Turns out it was news to Herod a new king had been born, which meant there was a usurper somewhere. They knew because they saw his star “at its rising” (not “in the east,” which makes no sense geographically).

Herod consulted his advisors, scribes and chief priests, who said the Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem according to Micah 5:2. Herod had survived so long on the throne by being both crafty and ruthless. He pointed the magi to Bethlehem and asked them to send him word when they find him, so he could “worship him” (or pay him homage) as well. Of course, that was a pretense. Herod planned to use the magi to discover where to find this would be king, so he could kill him. Thanks to an angel, the magi got wise to his plan (maybe that’s why they were called “wise men,” ha ha). So after they visited the child (not baby, by the way), gave him their gifts and worshipped him—indicating they believed he was the Messiah—they left for home, avoiding Herod altogether.

The Gifts: Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh

One thing I love about the Christmas Carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are” is how it explains the appropriateness of these gifts, and how they foreshadowed Jesus’ destiny as the Messiah. Gold represented royalty; frankincense was burned in the temple, hence divinity; and myrrh was used for embalming the dead, hence his death would be central to his mission.

Glorious now behold Him arise,

King and God and Sacrifice!

Al-le-lu-ia, al-le-lu-ia,

Heaven to earth replies.

“We Three Kings of Orient Are”

Excellent Christology. I remember back in college, after I had rededicated my life to Christ, I would hear the traditional Christmas Carols, ones that I had heard all my life, and felt like for the first time, I got it. I realized then some of the best Christology ever written is in those traditional Christmas hymns. I still had a lot to learn, but that was such a beautiful feeling.

But Didn’t You Say They Weren’t Kings?

Yes, they were most likely advisors to the king but not kings themselves. Some traditions have changed their title from magi to kings. In Spanish, the holiday called Epiphany is translated Dia de los Reyes (“kings”), when technically it should be “Dia de los Magos.” I think early Christians were not comfortable calling them “magicians” or “astrologers,” since both practices are forbidden in the Bible. “Wise men” is one alternative that became popular, and I think that is an acceptable translation. After all, their job was to give wise counsel to the king. Kings became another alternative, even though there is no textual evidence to justify that translation.

And while we’re at it, our images and Nativity scenes show three magi, but we don’t know how many there were. The Gospel of Matthew never specifies how many magi. We probably got three from the three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But two could have brought those gifts. So could twelve. Tradition settled not only on three but also names for them: Gaspar, Baltasar, and Melchior.

Balthasar, Melchior, Gaspar: the three magi bearing gifts
Image By Nina-no – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2176501 The Three Magi, Byzantine mosaic c.  565, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy (restored during the 18th century). As here Byzantine art usually depicts the Magi in Persian clothing which includes breeches, capes and Phrygian caps.

The earliest reference that says three magi comes from about 250 AD, too late for us to be sure. But we can stick with three just because it’s familiar, and three gifts from three wise men really does make the most sense.

We Have Seen His Star at Its Rising

Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

(Mat 2:2 KJV)

This doesn’t make sense. They came from the east (2:1), which means they traveled west. If they saw his star “in the east,” why did they follow the star “westward leading,” as the hymn says. That’s like if I wanted to find Santa’s workshop.

“Where is it?” I ask.

“The North Pole.”

“Which way is that?”

“Uh, north. Obviously.”

And then I travel south looking for the North Pole. Travel south to go north, travel west to go east. Crazy, right?

This is another case where we have learned a few things since the King James Version of 1611 that allow us to translate more accurately. The Greek phrase in question is en te anatole. In verse 1, Anatole is translated “East,” but it is in plural form. When it is singular, as in this particular phrase, en te anatole, it is best translated “at its rising.” In astrological terms, this refers to when a new “star” appears in the sky, as in a planetary conjunction. This is reflected in most modern translations.

In a previous post, I explained why I think the Jupiter-Regulus and Jupiter-Venus conjunctions of 3 and 2 BC are the best candidates for what the magi saw. So here is a better translation (humble brag).

2.1-2 And Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the King. Behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the one who was born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star at its rising and have come to pay homage to him.”

(my translation).

When can you call yourself a Bible Geek? When you do your own translations of Biblical Greek and Hebrew for fun! So yes, I am an unabashed Bible Geek.

And in Your Seed Shall All Nations Be Blessed

Since there was an astronomical event around the time of Jesus’ birth that gives a plausible explanation for what the magi saw, I have this question. What does it say about God that God would time the birth of the long-awaited Messiah to correspond with a sign in the heavens that Gentile astrologers (how un-kosher can you get) would not only recognize but be so moved that they would trek hundreds of miles just to see this baby or young child?

There were many prophecies that people from all the nations of the world would come to the land of Israel to seek the wisdom of God’s chosen people there. Matthew’s community probably saw the magi as the first Gentiles to fulfill all those prophecies. I could refer to any of those. But what I think of now is something God said to Abraham.

“And in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.”

(Gen 22:18 NAS)

In the book of Galatians, Paul says this is a reference to the Messiah, because “seed” (Heb. zera`) is singular, not plural (Gal 3:16). In other words, the promise to bless all nations would not come through all descendants of Abraham, but through one particular descendant, the Messiah. The magi probably learned about this from their Jewish friends. If the Messiah has come, he will be a blessing not only to the Jews but to us as well. And God did not hold it against them that they engaged in astrology and/or magic. Instead, God used it to tell them the blessing of Abraham had come to them as well.

I don’t want anyone to see this as an endorsement of astrology. I don’t believe in it and never have. When did astrologers ever read something specific and get it right? Never. Well, I guess now I have to admit that on this one occasion, the astrologers were right. And it reveals a God who reaches out to people where they are, not just where they should be.

Credit to the Jews

For Jews living in a city like Babylon, their kosher laws made it difficult to interact with Gentiles. There was always a fine line between being good neighbors and losing their Jewish identity. The books of Daniel and Esther show some wise Jews serving in the courts of kings and how they reconciled faithfulness to God with respect for the laws of the land. In a Parthian court, these magi must have worked with some Jews. How else would they have known about the promise of the Messiah?

So when they saw the conjunction of Jupiter with Regulus, their “manual” told them a new king of the Jews had been born. He must be an important king if it is announced in the heavens. Could he be the Messiah? Then that was confirmed with the Jupiter-Venus conjunction nine months later. So in June of 2 BC, they knew the Messiah had been born. But it took until possibly some time between October and early December in 1 BC for them to arrive in Jerusalem at the court of Herod.

Why didn’t they leave immediately? Most likely their duties as priests/magi/counselors kept them home for a while. Since the Roman and Parthian empires were mortal enemies, it probably was not easy to get permission to travel to a Roman territory. But then somehow the opportunity came for them to take a diplomatic trip. They got permission to search for this newborn king, probably with a stipulation that they return ASAP. The time of the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus had passed, but astrologers back then had to be meticulous and precise in charting their observations. I think they still could have “followed the star” on their charts.

We can only imagine what they felt seeing this child, but here’s how Matthew describes it.

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

(Mat 2:11 NRSV)

I imagine in a lot of ways, Jesus looked like an ordinary baby. But the wise men saw him as the Messiah, so they must have been overwhelmed after searching for him to finally see him in the flesh. I wonder what they told their Jewish friends about him when they returned. And this is where I want to give credit to those Jews who befriended them.

It’s not easy being a Jew in a Gentile country, always having to stay true to your faith and identity while mixing with people who represent a threat to both. Some took the path of isolation, and others the path of assimilation. In order to be friends with these magi, these Jews had to navigate a path between those extremes, not veering to the left or the right. That is not as easy as some people seem to think it is. But with God’s help, they found a way.

The magi were eager to learn new knowledge. They saw in the Jews a wisdom they had never encountered. If those Jews had assimilated, they would not have looked any different from the other counselors in the court. The magi would have found them interesting but not compelling. If they had isolated, the magi would never have learned about the Messiah. Because who else could have taught them about the promise of the Messiah in the scriptures? They didn’t proselytize or preach to a captive audience. They didn’t demand the magi convert, becomes circumcised, or give up their gods, magic, or astrology. They simply shared what they knew with people who wanted to learn. Never underestimate the power of that kind of witness. Without it, the Magi would have had no reason to care that a new king of the Jews had been born.

References

 “Bible Scholar Brent Landau Asks Who Were the Magi,”

Translation Notes

μάγοι noun nominative masculine plural common

[GING] μάγος
μάγος, ου, 1. a Magus, pl. Magi, a wise man or astrologer Mt 2:1, 7, 16.—2. magician Ac 13:6, 8.* [pg 121]

17609  μάγος, ου, ὁ from Persian magus (great); (1) magus, plural magi, the high priestly caste of Persia; wise man of the Magian religion (MT 2.1); (2) magician, sorcerer, one using witchcraft or magic arts (AC 13.6)

ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ (Mat 2:2 BNT), Noun, Dat F S; see note on v. 1; “at its rising” (NRSV) or “when it rose” (ESV).

6 tn Or “in its rising,” referring to the astrological significance of a star in a particular portion of the sky. The term used for the “East” in v. Mat 2:1 is ἀνατολαί (anatolai, a plural form that is used typically of the rising of the sun), while in vv. Mat 2:2 and Mat 2:9 the singular ἀνατολή (anatole) is used. The singular is typically used of the rising of a star and as such should not normally be translated “in the east” (cf. BDAG 74 s.v. 1: “because of the sg. and the article in contrast to ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν, vs. Mat 2:1, [it is] prob. not a geograph. expr. like the latter, but rather astronomical…likew. vs. Mat 2:9“). (BW translation note).

2.11

πεσόντες verb participle aorist active nominative masculine plural from πίπτω

[GING] πίπτω
πίπτω fall, the passive of the idea conveyed in βάλλω—1. lit. Mt 15:27; Mk 9:20; Lk 8:7; 21:24; Ac 20:9; Rv 1:17. Fall down as a sign of devotion Mt 2:11; 18:26, 29; Rv 5:14. Fall to pieces, collapse Mt 7:25, 27; Lk 13:4; Hb 11:30; Rv 11:13.—2. fig. Ac 1:26; 13:11; Rv 7:16. Fail, become invalid Lk 16:17; 1 Cor 13:8. Be destroyed Rv 14:8; 18:2. In a moral or cultic sense go astray, be ruined, fall Ro 11:11, 22; Hb 4:11; 1 Cor 10:12; Rv 2:5. [pg 159]

προσεκύνησαν verb indicative aorist active 3rd person plural from προσκυνέω

[GING] προσκυνέω

proskune,w (fall down and) worship, do obeisance to, prostrate oneself before, do reverence to, welcome respectfully depending on the object—1. to human beings Mt 18:26; Ac 10:25; Rv 3:9.—2. to God Mt 4:10; J 4:20f , 23f; 12:20; Ac 24:11; 1 Cor 14:25; Hb 11:21; Rv 4:10; 14:7; 19:4.—2. to foreign deities Ac 7:43.—3. to the Devil and Satanic beings Mt 4:9; Lk 4:7; Rv 9:20; 13:4; 14:9, 11.—4. to angels Rv 22:8.—5. to Christ Mt 2:2, 8, 11; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 20:20; 15:25; 28:9, 17; Mk 5:6; 15:19 ; Lk 24:52. [pg 171]

They knelt down. Some translations say fell down. In Greek the word is pesontes, which is a participle of pipto. Generally, it means fall, but it can have the specific meaning of “Fall down as a sign of devotion Mt 2:11; 18:26, 29; Rv 5:14” (Gingrich).

Paid him homage. Some translations say worshipped him. In Greek the word it prosekunesan, an Indicative Aorist of prosekuneo. In general, it means “(fall down and) worship, do obeisance to, prostrate oneself before, do reverence to, welcome respectfully depending on the object” (Gingrich).

I'm underwater with my right hand above

Baptism with my right hand above the water

My parents live in Honolulu, so if I want to visit them, I have to fly there. I know. Life is hard. Anyway, I went with my wife and stepson recently. My sister and brother-in-law came as well. Of course, in addition to seeing everyone, I was looking forward to getting in the water.

The day before we were to fly out, I got a flat tire. While I was trying to get to the spare in the trunk, my hand slipped and banged against something. My thumb started bleeding. That’s what I get for trying to fix it myself. I called roadside assistance while trying to stop the bleeding, got the car towed to a place where I could get a new tire, and then went to the emergency room to get my thumb stitched.

We stayed at a hotel near the airport, so we could get there on time. While washing my hands, I broke open a stitch or two. I managed to get the bleeding stopped, but how would affect my beach time? The doctor and nurse who stitched me said after about twenty-four hours, I would be okay to put it in water. However, that was with the wound closed. Now that it was re-opened, I couldn’t be sure anymore. It was Friday night, we had to make the flight Saturday morning, so it would probably wouldn’t be until Monday that I could see a doctor again.

Well, the doctor said I should keep the hand out of the water, just as I feared. Even thought it’s salty, the marine life has to take care of their business in the ocean (not to mention some people, but we won’t go there). That was not a problem without broken skin, but… It was still a good trip but a huge disappointment that I couldn’t really get into the water the way I wanted.

On my last day, I went all the way into the water with my right hand sticking out. I got my wife and stepson to take pictures.

I'm underwater with my right hand above
Does Baptism like this count?

This wasn’t just about obeying doctor’s orders. I was re-enacting a bit of Roman history. One story I heard about the Roman army is that when the emperor Constantine wanted his soldiers to be baptized, they asked if they could keep their right hands above the water. Why would they do that? Because the right hand was their sword/spear hand. It was the hand they used to kill in battle. This is one reason I believe early Christianity was a pacifist religion. I mean, when your founder says, “Love your enemies,” doesn’t that pretty much preclude killing them?

However, soldiers after Constantine were not prohibited from killing. Constantine’s rule marked a sea change where Christianity went from being distrusted and sometimes persecuted by the empire to being the religion of the empire. Unfortunately, it adopted the violent ways of the empire, among other things that we are still living with today.

When people say the church needs to get back to the first century, I wonder if they understand what that really means. Persecution could spring up anywhere without warning, and you could not kill to defend yourself. Their belief was that life was a gift from God. Only God could decide when a person’s life would end. That meant you could not kill for any reason: abortion, euthanasia, war (even if it’s just), the death penalty, or self-defense. Not even to defend your loved ones. When their lives were threatened they did not return evil for evil. They trusted God enough to believe in overcoming evil with good. They did not expect non-Christians to live the same way, but these acts were forbidden in the church nonetheless.

What would it look like if the church really did that? I explore this in a novel I am getting ready to publish with the title (subject to change) Through Fear of Death. A gladiator named Silas converts to Christianity. This means he cannot kill. His defiance will incur the wrath of his lanista and the Procurator of the Games. He finds an unlikely ally in his prison guard, a retired soldier named Marcus Valentinius. Will their friendship and loyalty be strong enough to bring down a ruthless emperor, or will Rome’s system of violence and treachery destroy them?

Through Fear of Death cover choice1, gladiator helmet
One possible cover for my upcoming novel
Through Fear of Death possible cover image, gladiator in arena
Another possible cover for my upcoming novel

If you have an opinion about these covers, let me know in the comments below.

Longest Night Service

 We celebrate Christmas on December 25, but that is not when Jesus was most likely born. The Gospel of Luke says, “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luk 2:8).

If Luke is correct, this would place his birth between February and April, when the ewes give birth to their lambs. This is when shepherds had to watch them all night, to be ready to assist the laboring sheep. This begs the question, why do we celebrate on December 25?

In about 312 AD, Constantine became emperor of Rome. He credited a key victory over his rival to a vision of the cross. He wanted to make an official holiday for Jesus’ birth. Mithras, a Persian deity, was also popular in the empire. His devotees celebrated his birthday on December 25. Constantine thought celebrating Jesus’ birth on the same day would help unify the people.

It also corresponded with the winter solstice and the Unconquered Sun celebration. People then like today noticed the days getting shorter until the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. It was as if the sun was weakening over months, maybe dying. Just when hope was at its lowest, the sun would gather its strength, and the days started getting longer again. The sun was still unconquered.

 

The Longest Night of the Year

 

Some churches have taken this idea of the longest night and made services around that theme. The idea is to give people who are depressed, lonely, and grieving during the holidays a chance to acknowledge those feelings. In my own denomination (PCUSA), only about 25% of congregations offer this type of service. I have never been to one. Here is what I’ve learned so far.

  • They may be called Blue Christmas or Longest Night services. I think the Longest Night is a more appropriate name. As one pastor said, “When you hear, ‘Come to the Blue Christmas’ service, you might think it is a service where you will get depressed.” That is not the impression they want to give.
  • In some churches, the Advent candles of hope, peace, joy, and love, are extinguished. For the Longest Night, they are replaced by hopelessness, fear, grief, and loneliness. This is not to depress people but to give them a chance to acknowledge these feelings.
  • Some churches have Parish Nurses plan and participate in the services.

Even though many acknowledge the need for a service like this during the holidays, attendance is often low. When one associate pastor of a congregation with 1,500 members proposed the idea, the members overwhelmingly approved it. But at the service itself, only twenty-five attended. Despite putting more effort into publicizing it and explaining the purpose, next year was the same. When asked why, people said they were not depressed, so they did not think this service was for them.

This is less than two percent of the congregation. The percentage of people living with depression is much greater than that. This points to a larger problem, not only in the church but in society as a whole. It is still difficult for many people to acknowledge depression and the feelings associated with it, especially during the  holidays. As one pastor said, “People are really unwilling to self-identify as grieving. People seem to prefer to think of themselves as independent and self-reliant and all those ‘boot strappy’ words that are part of our American ideal.”

Another said, “We as a culture tend to overlook the people who are grieving, who are lonely, especially at this time of year.”

In light of this, churches may have a better response if they focus on healing for others. Most people are more willing to come on behalf of a friend of family member who has experienced loss than for themselves.

 

Christmas on the Longest Night

 

Even though it is not historically accurate, Christmas on or near the longest night of the year fits spiritually. On Christmas, we celebrate the eternal Word of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In him was the same light that was with God in the beginning. And like the unconquered sun, even though the light may be hidden, it has always been and will always be there. The light shines brightest in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

In his flesh, Jesus experienced all the hopelessness, fear, grief, and loneliness you or I ever have. He is present to walk with us through our darkness and pain until we see the light again. Knowing this has not cancelled out the light represented in Advent, Christmas, and Easter services for me. It has made them meaningful at a deeper level.

One pastor said it very well. “The Incarnation is a reason for celebration that God loved us so much that God sent Jesus to be with us, but it is also a reason for celebration that Jesus came to walk with us through the pains of life as well. I wish we could better hold these two messages together.”

 

Grace and peace to you.

  

References

 

Dunigan, E. (Oct. 26, 2018). “Blue Christmas: ‘Tis the season—for depression.” Presbyterians Today

 

Download a copy of a Blue Christmas liturgy here.

 

To a Raging Anti-Feminist

Is International Women’s Day a good thing? I could think of many positive things about it, but I came across a blog that described it as “an estrogen fest of caustic female pride.” And this came from a young woman I have a lot of respect for. She went on to say that having a day to honor women dishonors men creates a double-standard. Sort of like, “Why isn’t there an International Men’s Day?” And she fretted that she would have to tell men, “We’re not all raging feminists.”

I’m not linking to it, because 95% of the time, what she writes is pure gold. I don’t want that to be the first impression anyone has of her. However, this time, she could not be more wrong. In her quest not to become a raging feminist, she has become a raging anti-feminist. There is nothing about International Women’s Day that should make anyone feel threatened. There are very good reasons for men to celebrate International Women’s Day. But if you are still asking, “Why isn’t there an International Men’s Day,” there is. It’s on November 19.

Here is my response to her and anyone else who feels threatened by women and/or feminism.

*****

If you don’t mind, I’m going to try to speak the truth in love.

First, I don’t know what happened to you that made you think things like feminism and International Women’s Day are about bashing you, motherhood, men, and femininity. Whatever it is, I apologize on behalf of all of us. There are some man-haters and people who denigrated stay-at-home moms. And with the way some men behave, and some women who blame them for every ill of society because they worked outside the home, they probably have good reason. But real feminism is not about any of that. If it were, Jesus would not have been a feminist.

Jesus was a feminist.

I know that’s shocking to most people, but once you realize feminism is the radical notion that God created women equal to men in dignity and worth, it’s not hard to see (Luke 8:1-3; 10:38-42; John 4:1-26).

Perhaps the best example is that when women told the disciples they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, the (male) disciples didn’t believe them. When Jesus did appear to the disciples, one of the first things He did was upbraid them for not believing the women (Mark 16:14). Why wouldn’t they believe them? Maybe it was because at that time, the testimony of a woman was not considered valid evidence in a court of law. In this, Jesus was telling anyone who wanted to follow Him, “No more of that chauvinism in My church.” This is why Paul was able to say, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, but all are one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28-29).

Have we learned that lesson yet?

In some ways yes, and in some ways no. We still haven’t reached Jesus’ goal of equality between men and women. It would help if every once in a while, we stopped to ask, What does equality look like in real life? How have we progressed toward it? How do we still fall short of the glory God calls us to? It seems to me International Women’s Day is the perfect opportunity to do just that. Honoring women is not just good for “raging feminists.” It’s good for women period. And it’s even good for men. That’s why many men celebrated by posting tributes to the women who have inspired them, taught them, and helped make them the men they are today.

A Reckoning

And a word about #metoo and #timesup, because all of America needs to understand what’s happening there. The Bible tells us over and over again, when a society allows injustice to flourish, God will give the perpetrators time to repent. If they do not, then at some point God says, “Time’s up,” and the reckoning comes. The reckoning is happening now, and movements like #metoo and #timesup are just the beginning

To close, I will say this one more time. Real feminism is the radical notion that God created men and women equal in dignity and worth (Gen. 1:26-27; 5:2). In real feminism, there is room for the stay-at-home mom and the mother working outside the home. There is room for the mother of eight and one who never has and never will bear children. It’s good for anyone who believes women should be free to use the gifts God gave them, the same freedom that men take for granted. I pray one day you will see that, because we really are on the same side.

Enemy of God, by Bernard Cornwell. A Review.

This is a book review for Bernard Cornwell’s Enemy of God: A Novel of Arthur. It is the second in a series called The Warlord Chronicles or sometimes the Arthur Books. Notice it does not say King Arthur. Cornwell has a different take on these legends and characters. I really enjoyed this book, and I am giving it a five star rating. This review does have a few plot spoilers, but I will keep them as vague as possible.

Cover image of the book Enemy of God by Bernard Cornwell

Five Star Rating

There was so much I liked about it. I liked being in England in the Dark Ages – or what we now call the Dark Ages – at a time when Christianity was not yet the dominant religion in England but was a rising force. It was also a time when people still believed in magic, spells and charms, and sometimes believing in it might have been enough to make wondrous things happen.

Cornwell pulls off two difficult moves. First, presenting “the truth behind the legend” in a plausible fashion. He recreates these characters and stories as they were before they got embellished and whitewashed, or as Arthur says, “Before we paid the bards to make our squalid victories into great triumphs, and sometimes we even believe the lies they sing to us.” As an aspiring author, I was impressed with this. Second, he doesn’t lose me when normally I would be thinking, wait that’s not how Lancelot is supposed to be, or wait, Arthur is supposed to be king. He stopped those responses from me even before they began. I think the reason is the narrator. He tells this story through Derfel (pronounced Der-vel), a knight and close friend of Arthur. Derfel is now an old man, and he is telling the story as he remembered it. Incidentally, it was the same way Anita Diamant was able to change the Old Testament story of Dinah in The Red Tent.

There is one disadvantage in this approach. You lose some suspense. When Derfel is in a dangerous situation, you already know he’s going to survive because he’s alive to tell the tale. But I think what he gains in believability makes it worth the trade off. I don’t know any other way Cornwell could make changes in such a familiar story. Using an older Derfel as the narrator makes it plausible because he has the credibility of an eyewitness. It also makes it more interesting in some ways, because you know some details are going to be the same and some different. You’re constantly watching to see how the “real” story compares with the legend.

I haven’t said King Arthur because Arthur is not a king. Mordred is the king of Dumnonia and Arthur’s half-nephew (if there is such a term). Arthur and Derfel are charged with protecting the boy Mordred and keeping order until he is old enough to rule as king. Derfel and others who follow Arthur think he should be king, while Arthur dreams of a quiet retirement as a farmer. Guinevere, on the other hand, wishes Arthur had more ambition. Her drive for power is going to have more impact on the story than you will imagine.

Lancelot is a king and far from being a hero or the greatest knight of Arthur’s roundtable. Merlin is a druid, and he is trying to recover the treasures of Britain. He takes Derfel on a quest to find one of those treasures, a magic cauldron. Merlin believes if the treasures are recovered, the old gods of Britain will walk the earth again.

And it’s not just the old gods that have a stake in Britain’s future. Because of leftover Roman influence, some foreign gods are still worshipped. Guinevere is a worshiper of Isis. Derfel is a Christian but belongs to a society of Mithras. And some Christians are especially troublesome because this story takes place between 490 and 496, and they believe 500 is the year of Armageddon. They believe they must get the world ready for the return of the Lord. In order to do that, they try to rid Britain of all traces of paganism. They go around destroying temples, burning villages, and torturing and killing pagans. They try to purify themselves by self-flagellation.

The Christians are not all bad, but they are often not the good guys in this story. And we have to be willing to admit, historically, that has often been the case. However, I think more than a knock on Christianity, it illustrates that when people believe the world is about to end, they will do things they would not do otherwise.

Arthur is caught in the middle between the traditional religion and Christianity. He is a Christian but does not take up the cause against the pagans. Because of this, Christian extremists call him the enemy of God, hence the title of the book. Instead of a religious crusade, Arthur wants to create a national identity for the Britons so they can unite against foreign invaders, like the Saxons and the Belgians. He creates the roundtable toward this end, though most of the names we are familiar with are missing.

Oh yes, the names. They are difficult. Because Arthurian legends were originally Welsh stories, Cornwell decided to keep most of the Welsh names for an authentic feel. Once you get past familiar ones like Arthur, Merlin, and Guinevere, the names are almost impossible to pronounce. I run into the same problem writing about Rome. The most common complaint I get is, These Roman names are difficult to read. And let me tell you, Roman names are child’s play compared to Welsh names. So I suggest the same trick many people use for Biblical names: Just make something up and move on. No one will care that you cheated.

But what really thrilled me was what Lancelot did to try to claim the throne of Dumnonia away from Mordred. Up until then, I would have given it four stars. It was a great story, well written, and I was enjoying it, but when that happened, holy crap! That was a twist worthy of Game of Thrones. That’s when it became a five star novel for me.

I mentioned this is the second book in a series. I haven’t read the rest of the series yet. So why did I read the second book first, you ask? I am part of an online book club of Ancient and Medieval Historical Fiction. Last year, the theme was “second book.” One thing I’ve learned in this experience is with some series, you can read books out of order, and you don’t lose much. The second thing is sometimes the second book is better than the first, so the first book of a series may not always give you the best of what an author has to offer. So far, I’ve found this to be true of the Roma Sub Rosa series and the Saxon Tales series.

I see two reasons for this. First, I think sometimes the author becomes a better writer after the second book. There are lessons learned from that experience that you can carry with you when you write your second book. Second, in some cases, the main characters become better developed as the series progresses. I definitely thought that was true of the Harry Potter series. I know some H. P. fans are going to disagree with me, but I liked the books toward the end better than the ones in the beginning. I saw J. K. Rowling’s writing style and storytelling technique get better with each book, and what she did with the final book, Deathly Hallows, was absolutely amazing.

So now I’m not sure if I want to read the first book of this series or not. But if you are interested, volume 1 is called The Winter King, and volume 3 is called Excalibur, which I will be reading as soon as I can fit it into my schedule.

J. C. and the 12 O.G.’s (Mk 3:13-19a; Mat 10:1-4; Lk 6:12-16)

In the 1980’s, I loved Carman. He had a sense of humor, and early in his career, he said he wrote some songs that weren’t accepted by mainline Christianity because they were, in his own words, “a little off the wall.” This post is going to be a little off the wall. I hope you can handle it.

As someone who believes Christianity was originally nonviolent, and should still be, you might be surprised if I make a comparison between gangs and early Christians. I might not have the “street cred” for this. I was never in a gang. My only experience with them is through TV, movies, and news reports. However, like today’s street and motorcycle gangs, Christianity was sometimes an illegal organization in its early days.

In previous posts, I have talked about my novel manuscript that has not yet been published. (Maybe it’s a little off the wall). A major theme in the story has to do with persecution. How did the church continue to not only survive but grow when just being a Christian could get you tortured and killed? I think I got a few insights from watching Gangland and Sons of Anarchy. Gangs create a culture that encourages extreme loyalty that will stand up to prison, torture, and death.

Image of Sons of Anarchy cast members Kim Coates, Charlie Hunnam, and Tommy Flanagan
Not exactly nonviolent.

The main rules you must accept to be part of any gang:

  1. Respect the O.G.’s
  2. Gang before everything, even family.
  3. Brotherhood: Intense love for each other.
  4. No snitching.
  5. Make some friends outside the gang.
  6. Never let a rival gang disrespect you.
  7. Recruit new members, but be careful.

The early church used these same tactics. I’m not saying they were a gang literally, but I think in some ways they had to have a gangster mentality. Let’s compare how this looks in gangs versus first century Christianity.

1. Respect the O.G.’s

O.G. stands for Original Gangster. Every gang has its founders, i.e. O.G.’s, and you must respect them. The Twelve O.G.’s of Christianity were the twelve apostles in the scripture references above.

2. Gang before everything, even your life and family.

Gangs make it clear up front you must give them your ultimate loyalty. The gang comes before your wife, your kids, your job, your mother, your father, your brother, your sister, your life, everything and everyone. The church wouldn’t expect you to put them above your own life and family, would they? Well, how do you explain verses like this?

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me (Mat 10:37).

And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it (Mark 8:35).

Their loyalty to Christ had to be absolute. Their loyalty to each other had to be absolute. Your family might turn you in to authorities – whether the Sanhedrin or the Romans – but your brothers and sisters in Christ never will.

The authorities might threaten not only your life but your family’s lives as well. You had to remain strong. That was the only way to ensure the gang could continue after you were gone.

3. Brotherhood: Intense love for each other

In Sons of Anarchy, which is clearly modeled after the Hell’s Angels, they talk all the time about being a brotherhood. They will say to each other, “I love you, my brother.” There aren’t many places where men declare their love for each other without afterward saying, “But I’m not gay.” Being a part of a brotherhood like that is definitely part of the attraction of gangs for young men.

John’s Gospel and epistles give some of the most succinct expressions of brotherly love:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another (John 13:34).

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen (1Jn 4:20).

Their loyalty to Christ was directly tied to loyalty to one another. He died for us, so we have to be willing to die for each other. That formed the basis of their brotherhood. And yes, sisterhood too.

4. No snitching

Have you heard snitches get stitches? Gangs punish betrayal severely. In gangs, if you rat, you die.

Remember how I said earlier your brothers and sisters in Christ will never rat you out? The flip side of that coin is you’d better not rat them out. The worst name you could be called was Judas, the mother of all rats. To most gangs, it would be unthinkable to let a rat live. To the church, killing was forbidden. However, the church had another punishment that was even worse: “Leave it to the wrath of God… ‘Vengeance is mine. I will repay,’ saith the LORD” (Rom 12:19).

How would God repay? Hell was certain, unless like Paul, you repented. Death comes to everyone, and after that, judgment. If you turn in your fellow Christians to the authorities, knowing they are going to be tortured and probably killed, do you want to face God on the judgment seat after that? I don’t think so.

Why such severe punishment? Think about the situation they’re in. The authorities can use severe punishment to coerce testimony against you and your gang. You hope your brotherly love will keep them loyal under any duress. But just in case, you need punishment even more severe to be sure they keep their mouths shut.

5. Make friends outside the gang

In Sons of Anarchy, they had people in their pocket who could help them in ways people inside the gang could not. If they were in a bind with the authorities, they had people they could call in favors from: A sheriff, a police chief, a few deputies, a few prison guards, a few businessmen, a city council member. Now think about that when you see a verse like this.

And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward (Mat 10:42).

What does that mean? Are you a Christian? Ok, then, I’ll give you this water. Why would anyone do that?

Is he talking about Christians giving to Christians? That’s the only case where giving to someone because he’s a Christian makes sense. Why would a non-Christian give to a Christian because he’s a Christian?

This verse did not make any sense to me until I thought about how gangs have friends on the outside. Maybe this is referring to friendships cultivated with outsiders. Maybe there were some people who saw their persecution and were sympathetic to them. During the Holocaust, there were some Gentiles who helped Jews because they were Jews. They hid them and did what they could to help them survive. I think Christians had friends like these when they were persecuted as well.

6. Never let a rival gang disrespect you.

The Sons of Anarchy were constantly in tension with, or outright war against, other gangs in the area. Someone in another gang disrespects them or kills one of their own, it’s war. Literally. At one point, I had to stop watching because there was too much blood and guts. I don’t mind realism, but it was getting excessive, and innocent people died too often just from doing their job or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What does that have to do with the first century church? Early Christianity was not monolithic, as we tend to think. The orthodox, or “correct,” version had not yet been established. There were rival factions, and I think some sects were not above using the authorities to remove some they thought of as heretical. Consider this.

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God (1Jn 4:2-3a).

I don’t think we should take this literally, because I have seen and met some people who believe all the right doctrines and are not from God. You can talk to just about any KKK member and ask,

Do you believe in God almighty, maker of heaven and earth?

Yes.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son and our Lord?

Yes.

Do you believe Jesus Christ came to earth in the flesh?

Yes.

Do you believe white people have to keep uppity [N-word] in their place?

Yes.

That spirit is definitely not of God. Why would this or any one specific doctrine be some absolute standard of trustworthiness? Like one of my professors said, “Right beliefs, right confessions, and 50 cents will get you a cup of coffee in the coffee shop in Sheol.”

Maybe there’s something else going on in John’s community that’s not immediately obvious almost 2000 years later. We know from the New Testament and other literature of the time there were some Christian sects who did not believe Jesus was a flesh-and-blood human being. They believed he was a pure divine spirit who appeared in human form, sort of like Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Image of Q (John De Lancie) in Inquisitor garb
Caption: It’s not like I’m an all-powerful space entity or anything, but — Oh, wait! I AM an all-powerful space entity!

To John, the community’s O.G., it was very important that Jesus was a real flesh-and-blood human being. I’d like to propose that John was talking about not just a theological dispute but also a way to identify a separate sect, i.e., a rival gang. Saying Jesus Christ did not come in the flesh would be like a red bandana to a Crip or a blue bandana to a Blood.

John’s message to his community is, “They may call themselves Christians and preach about Jesus, but if they don’t believe like we do, they don’t belong to us.” In an environment where Christians are part of something illegal, they need to know who they can trust. That gang over there, they may look and talk like us, but they are not us. You can’t trust them.

7. Recruit new members, but be careful

People die in gangs: From old age (if you’re lucky), but more likely from being killed by police or rival gangs. This outflow makes it necessary to recruit new members. But how do you recruit for something like that? You can’t run an ad saying, “Anyone want to join an outlaw motorcycle gang? Meet us on the corner of 5th and Oak Street.”

They can only take people they know will not betray them. They need people who will follow their rules. Most people only get in if a member recommends them, though occasionally someone might be able to approach them, especially if they have a useful skill.

But getting in doesn’t mean you are a member. First, you are granted “hangaround” status, which means what it implies. If a member is willing to sponsor you (absolutely necessary), you have the right to “hang around” the gang and show you know your place. After a while, you may be upgraded to Prospect. This is the time when you prove your loyalty by doing anything a gang member says, from guarding bikes while the gang members party and cleaning up afterwards to criminal activity, even murder. Only when the gang is satisfied you’ve proven your loyalty will they accept you as a full member, and the vote has to be unanimous.

The early church wouldn’t have people run drugs or murder anyone, but there were times they had to be careful about who they let in. They needed to know any new members would be loyal to them, no matter what. I don’t have texts to prove this, but I believe early Christian communities had an initiation period where people would have “hangaround” or “prospect” status before being accepted as members. They would be instructed in their most basic beliefs – as much as they could tell, and probably emphasizing that they accepted the authority of Rome in earthly matters, while Christ is Lord over spiritual matters (Just in case they were spies for the Roman government). They would be encouraged to “count the cost,” because Rome did not always accept their distinction between earthly and spiritual Lordship.

If they still wanted to join, and the members accepted them, then they would be baptized to recognize their full membership. Only those who were baptized could join in the Lord’s Supper. Only the those who partook of the Body and Blood of the Lord together would be trusted with their secrets.

Jesus himself modeled this. He would speak to the crowds in parables but only explain the meanings to the twelve disciples. This made it difficult for his enemies to pin any charges on him, while communicating his true message only to his inner circle of twelve friends. Those twelve went on to become the “Original Gangsters” of the first underground Christian communities.